Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bonsai People: Bringing Muhammad Yunus' vision to life

This is a guest post contributed by Holly Mosher, producer of the documentary Bonsai People. The film traces microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus' journey to his next big idea: Social Business.

I was inspired to go to Bangladesh when I read that Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank had won the Nobel Peace Prize for microcredit loans. I was fascinated that an economist and a bank had won the peace prize instead of the prize in economics, but when the article I was reading mentioned that they lent money to 6.5 million poor women -- nearly one out of every 1,000 people on earth -- I knew I had to go to see it for myself.

Arriving in Bangladesh, I was struck that there were fewer women out on the streets than in other places I’ve visited. I was also surprised by the massive overcrowding and traffic -- far worse than in Los Angeles, where I live. I was happy to escape to the villages to see Grameen's work firsthand. Grameen means village, and the bulk of their work takes place in very rural areas.

On my first research trip, I was taken to meet a wide variety of women borrowers running different enterprises. I met a plant nursery owner, a biscuit producer, the operator of a pottery plant, an egg seller, a land lady, and even a woman who ran a papier mache factory employing 15 other people.

But for the film I was making, I wanted to show the trajectory of what life is like for people before they become Grameen members, and how their lives change after they join. I decided to follow a new branch during the course of a year. 

A Grameen branch meeting in Bangladesh.

When I got there, it was clear that gender equality didn't exist in this part of Bangladesh. The rural women were mostly at home and shy about talking to strangers. I watched as the new bank branch manager had to meet with the men in the village first to explain what Grameen Bank does. The manager then met with the women who would become borrowers. It was remarkable how these very shy women started to come out of their shells at Grameen Bank meetings, where they had to speak up for themselves and take charge of their financial futures. 

Bank branches are very precisely structured. Every branch breaks the women into groups of five with a group leader and secretary. Over the years, they rotate, allowing different members to serve as chairwomen. Most importantly, all members can buy shares in the bank, and nine borrowers serve on its board of directors each year.

I was able to see the women's confidence grow as they became a part of the bank and established a financial role within their families. It was also inspiring to see them the putting away small amounts of savings every week to build nest eggs for larger purchases or unexpected expenses.

Changes came slow through the first year, but they were significant. Eventually, all of the women would tell me how they finally had enough to eat and could afford to improve their homes for sanitation. Many of these families had been suffering with health issues caused by a lack of sanitary facilities in their villages. Grameen helped turn this around as they worked their way out of poverty.

To present a comprehensive picture of Yunus' work, I knew it was important to follow a variety of subjects. Initially, I followed a successful borrower named Aroti to show how far someone can go with the support of the bank. She did so well that she now serves on her village council. But I also followed two women women struggling to get by, who received 0% interest loans from Grameen. One of them, an elderly widow, faced extreme discrimination. The importance of having a safety net for those who are too old to work came into stark relief.

Just spending time in the village, I witnessed many of the problems that have inspired Yunus to move on from simple microfinance to larger social businesses. I saw health problems that inspired his health care company. I saw children dropping out of school too early and widespread illiteracy among women, necessitating an education program. I saw people cooking over livestock waste and wood and lighting their homes only with kerosene -- and I understood the difference electricity could make in their lives. I saw all of the things that Yunus has created businesses and services to solve.

Children enrolled in an education program.

I decided to focus my film on these social businesses and their potential to have a major impact. I called the film Bonsai People - The Vision of Muhammad Yunus, because I could see what Yunus sees: These people have the same capacity as you or me, but just like a bonsai tree, their roots have been potted. They haven't been given access to the nutrients and resources that allow us to flourish.

I'd like to encourage Kiva lenders to consider hosting a screening of the film, or even just put it in their Netflix queues. It's perfect for watching with friends to explain why you support people with microloans, and promote discussion about who and how we all want to be in the world.

Holly Mosher is an award-winning filmmaker who brings socially conscious films to the public. After graduating with honors from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Holly produced a number of commercials and feature films. Her films have received international press attention, and the Hollywood Reporter named her one of the top, up-and-coming independent film producers.